A Long Run

The purpose of the run is to help the herd get to its final destination in the holding pens at the back of the Plaza de Toros (the bull fight arena) making sure to never do anything that would distract the bulls from that course. The best runners do this by running before the herd, and the very best runners do it by running just before the horns of the bulls, ‘running on the horns’.  The great runners act as herdsmen, though there are actual herdsmen on the street every morning who wear dark green, collared shirts with PASTORES written on back. Even so, when there is trouble it’s the great runners who often do most of the work. While the pastores keep the crowd behind the bull’s back, and they are quite willing to strike anyone attempting to break past them with their long, thin, whip-like, elastic canes (which break skin and bones with ease) it is the great runners who turn sueltos (bulls separated from herd) and lure them up the street and into the corrals. It’s these great runners who run toward the bull when one is goring a fellow runner and possibly killing them. They grab hold of the bull’s tail and hold tight, which usually distracts the bull and disorients him enough for the gored, bloodied runner to be dragged to safety.

David Rodriguez Lopez is one of those great runners. In my eyes he is the greatest runner running today in Pamplona. Each morning he fights it out on Estafeta, runs for tremendous distances on the horns, and whenever there’s a suelto he is on hand to bring him in. He wears all white except for the top half of his three-button collared shirt which is a vibrant green. I call him ‘El Pastor’. My wife calls him her ‘hero’ and I have no problem with that because that’s exactly what he is, a Hero.

2009

Last year Lopez was one of the few runners who helped save a man who was being killed by a vicious Miura bull at the tunnel into the arena; (the man was gored in the chest and miraculously survived due to the lifesaving work by Red Cross medics).

On July 9th of this year’s fiesta, I had a very long and strange run. I had committed to running the entire 826 meter course over the eight days of encierros section by section, starting at the beginning. It was a long-time dream of my Pamplona mentor Graeme Galloway to do this and Gary Masi, my other close compadre in the run, had committed to it as well. Liz Madeley was filming a documentary about it. I had a strong urge pulling me toward Telefonica, the section near the end of the route, which is my favorite place to run. So each morning I’d book my ass off and leave my older friends in the dust trying to get to Telefonica in as few days as possible.  I’d made it all the way through Town Hall, on the second day and we started just before Town Hall on the third. At the rocket (which signifies the release of the bulls) I dashed off, planning to run the Curve (the famous hard-banking turn in the run), but I got out a little early and the bulls weren’t on me until I was a good ways up Estafeta street. I struggled for position, the street dense with runners. The sudden roar of the herd as they crashed into the curve, the deafening rumble of hooves and shouts as they approached. The shoves and elbows, hands grasping and wrenching at my shirt, the panging bells swaying from the steer’s necks.  I saw an opening and made a quick cut and ended up directly in front of a galloping bull as it surged toward me and just as its sharpened horn neared my back I cut again, this time out of its path my sneakers slipping on the damp street another runner catching me by the elbow keeping me up as the rest of the herd rambled past.

I was on the horns for literally a second and a half and miraculously got this photo out of it:

I’m the runner in blue stripes.

After the herd passed I leaned against a storefront with my lungs burning. I was a little rattled from the near-fall and close brush with the bull, but I was more frustrated that I still hadn’t achieved my goal of a long, sustained run on the horns-something I hadn’t yet accomplished in over thirty attempts, and many runners never accomplish. That’s when I began to hear a commotion down the street like a horrible brawl, moving slowly in my direction. I knew it was a suelto and I knew I’d have a chance to help bring him in and that was my final thought. I slowly worked toward him, sifting through the crowd, finding the right side of the street near the boarded-up businesses the clearest. The bull was disoriented and sluggish and the runners where having a hard time getting him to turn. My heart began to leap as I grew closer and closer to the massive 675kg jet-black bovine with a red streak running from between his bouldery shoulders down the center of it’s back. He seemed to be staring at his reflection in a large, thick glass window, hoping for this mysterious black shadow staring back at him to break off in the direction his brothers had gone and show him the way.  I got so that I was abreast with the front line of runners, many of them older, experienced Spaniards.

I bent at the knee’s and waved my newspaper low (where the bull’s vision is better) along with the others, and finally the bull lunged forward. We all turned and ran, the entire glob of a hundred or so runners moving like a thick school of fish evading a predator.

At first I had this sense of panic that I would turn and there would be a guy standing still behind me and he’d trip me up and get me gored, but slowly I gained this trust with the others runners-with the bull, even. It got so I didn’t have to even look at the bull, I could sense him getting ready to move, and when I ran I could hear and feel, even smell in his beastly rank stench how close he was and how fast. It was nothing short of mystical.

We worked him slowly up the long, gently inclined cobblestone straight away of Estafeta when suddenly I looked to my side: a runner stood beside me in all white with the top half of his shirt bold green. It was Lopez, right beside me. I was stricken with a shutter of nerves, more intimidated to be beside the great runner than to be in front of this massive bull.

Later I realized I knew the other runner as well, the one in all white with the light blue collar closest to the bull. He usually wears a gray and purple striped collared rugby shirt and I witnessed him in one of the most horrific moments of the past decade. During the 2005 Jandilla run, he literally saved a man’s life on Estafeta by grabbing hold of the tail of a bull that had gored the man seven times and was trying to finish him off.

2005: You can just make out the sleeve of the purple and gray striped shirt; the gored man is trying to escape, crawling away as the bull attempts to finish him.The next day the gored man was in the newspaper on a gurney in what looked to be a whole body cast, he’d even been gored once in the face and there he was giving the camera and the whole of Fiesta the thumbs up.

He like Lopez is one of the great runners of the era. Watching both of these runners over the years has been a great inspiration and being able to run beside them was a true honor.

After a few more yards I realized I was through; the many surges of adrenaline had my legs locking up on me, ignoring my requests to jet away from the danger as quickly as I wanted them to. I decided to get out. I jogged ahead and crawled out under the bottom barricade at the top of Estafeta. A second later the bull came barreling into the same thick oak fence I’d just gotten under and gored a man who was attempting to climb over the fence through the thigh. Police and medics immediately pulled the man out. As he lay at my feet, I saw that the horn had passed through the back of his thigh and exited the front before it was ripped out; blood gushing and spurting from both holes and soaking his white cloth pants. The young man’s entire body was trembling as he lay on his back fully in shock; his eyes had rolled up into the back of his head and he was foaming at the mouth as he emitted a seething screech through his teeth.

A slack-jawed gypsy with a mullet who’d just climbed in through the fence from outside (where there was a wall of surging spectators along the outer fence), raised a little digital camera and took a photo of this man’s agony and I almost punched a hole through his head I was so disgusted. But I didn’t.

I looked back through the inner barricades to the street: Lopez had grabbed hold of the tail of the bull and was being dragged past by it like he was on water-ski’s. I had a sudden, sharp stab of regret in my solar-plexus for getting out like I’d broken some sacred bond and went to climb back in, but a policeman shoved me back and I gave up. I climbed through the outer barricades and wandered the Plaza del Castillo, furious and exhausted, listening for the last rocket that finally sounded at seven minutes and eleven seconds from the first.

For Further Reading on this topic:

http://www.sanfermin.com/

Death In The Afternoon by Earnest Hemingway

The Drifter’s & Iberia as well as Bull Running (an article that appeared in the Dec 1970 issue of Esquire Magazine) by James Michener

Pamplona by Ray Mouton

http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/2792/sacred_bull/ By University of Chicago PHD in Religious Studies Jeremy Biles

The Runner a documentary about one of the great Mozos, Joe Distler

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/opinion/06iht-eddistler.html?_r=1 A personal essay by Joe Distler

http://johnhemingway.blogspot.com/2009/07/san-fermin.html John Hemingway’s Article which appeared in El Mundo newspaper in Spain.

http://web.me.com/pamplonaposse/Who_Are_The_Posse/Home.html  The Pamplona Posse site is a wonderful place to learn about the run and a good group to set up travel arrangements with

http://phillypena.com/ A very informative site put together by a good group of runners

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About thebutchersblog

I'm a writer and storyteller from Chicago.
This entry was posted in El Encierro (The Running of the Bulls) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Long Run

  1. Top notch commentary from a great runner.

  2. cathy says:

    Great pics!!!

  3. Great posting, loved your writing and amazing pics!

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